Five tips for learning to speak French in later life

Bilingual columnist Cynthia Spillman’s husband failed O-level French twice - these are her tips from watching him become more fluent

Do not take yourself too seriously. Keep going even if you make mistakes

I am one of those infuriating people who was brought up bilingual, and I have retained my French.

When I met my husband Peter, he had failed O-level French twice and could not even speak schoolboy French.

This irritated him, as when I was with family, I would launch into full French flow and he would invariably get left behind.

I grew tired of always translating for him and, being prone to impatience, refused to speak French to him, despite his requests.

Aged 52, he went back to school and took a GCSE and AS-level, attaining A-star passes in both.

Based on his experience, here are some tips to help to improve your confidence when speaking French.

Read more: Seven words you will often hear in spoken French

French formality

Let’s start with the perennial worry of when to say vous and when to use tu.

The French are formal. If in doubt, use vous. You can always be corrected!

Vous is used for all formal relationships and is seen as a mark of respect. Older people, professionals, strangers, and work colleagues should be addressed as vous.

You can say tu to children and friends. Having said that, it always astounded me that my mother used vous with her friends of a similar age.

Read more: ‘Vous? Tu? French people are more worried about mistakes than I am’

Give it a go

I think it is rude to live in a country and not attempt to learn the language. There is no point expecting everyone to speak English.

If you truly want to embrace the experience of living abroad, and become integrated, you must make the effort. Locals really appreciate it.

Peter says he speaks French comme une vache espagnole (like a Spanish cow) – but he carries on regardless.

You do not have to make a speech – just short everyday phrases such as bonjour, au revoir and je ne parle pas couramment le français (I don’t speak French fluently).

Basics, such as comment allez-vous? (how are you?), will never go awry. If you ask open questions, then people must respond.

Find a language class and if there are not any locally, sign up online.

If you do not understand a word or expression, say so. If somebody is speaking too quickly, ask them to slow down.

Progress and not perfection

Nobody expects you to speak or write at the standard of Molière. What you practise, you become good at. It is not a competition or a race.

Read newspapers, listen to the radio, and watch plenty of television.

You can cheat and read the subtitles but your ear will start to become attuned to French. Immerse yourself in French as much as possible.

Read more: Five films or series to watch on Netflix to help boost your French

Conversational hot potatoes

The French are private as a nation. It takes a while to get to know them and to make sense of cultural differences.

For example, it is fine to volunteer personal information about yourself, but do not expect them to respond with a gush of mutual revelation.

Topics to avoid at all costs (until you know people better and your French is at a good enough level to debate) are sex, religion and politics.

Even if you get on with work colleagues, it might take a while before you receive an invitation to their home.

Do not take yourself too seriously

I have overheard some true conversational howlers.

My father had mastered French by the end of his life, but occasionally made some hilarious mistakes.

He once wanted to say, je veux jeter un coup d’oeil (I want to have a look), but instead came out with je veux jeter une coupe d’huile (I want to throw a cup of oil).

Peter recently went to the market to buy food for a dinner party. He returned with a big grin on his face, looking pleased as Punch.

He informed me that he had bonded with the market sellers over the use of a certain word which, unbeknown to him, had a double entendre.

I pride myself on knowing most rude French words in existence, but this one foxed me. And it foxed my French cousins who came to dinner too.

We peered at Google on our phones and, indeed, Peter had learned something new and educated us.

The common thread in these two tales is that neither my father nor Peter took themselves seriously. If you get it badly wrong, just laugh.

I am sure the person with whom you are speaking will also laugh. You can always apologise if you inadvertently give offence!

To recap

  • If in doubt, stick to vous in conversations
  • Stay away from difficult topics
  • Find a suitable language class and practise, practise, practise
  • Leave your ego at home. If you get it wrong, you will not be sent to the guillotine! It is better to have tried and made a fool of yourself, than not to have tried at all
  • Watch as much French TV as you can
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